Hunger is Not an Emergency

Megan Dahlman
May 16, 2016

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Hunger is Not an Emergency

Are you petrified of feeling hungry? Do you try to avoid the empty feeling in your stomach at all cost? Perhaps the second you feel it coming on...”Food! I need food now!”

We even have a new vocabulary word--hangry—essentially tying together our hunger, feelings and emotions. Have you used this one, yet? I bet you have!

The fact that feeling hungry is so interwoven into our emotions is quite clear. There are certainly physiological reasons for this. But, what you must understand is that HUNGER IS NOT AN EMERGENCY.

Feeling hungry is not your body’s desperate plea for food right this instant.

It is a completely natural feeling that occurs as food moves through your digestive tract.

Let’s get all "science-y" for just a minute. As food travels through your GI (gastrointestinal) tract, the nervous system and endocrine system (the one that’s in charge of your hormones) control the movement, digestion and absorption of food by secreting hormones and turning on movement. Sections of your digestive tract are “turned on” and then “turned off” as needed.

These hormones and neurotransmitters also simultaneously send signals to your brain to either increase appetite or give you the feelings of fullness and satiety. That hunger sensation you feel? It could be Neuropeptide Y, the hormone Ghrelin, or the hormone motilin.

Interestingly, motilin causes the smooth muscles of your intestine to contract, which is exactly what you’re noticing when your stomach growls. So several hours after a meal, your intestine is contracting to work that meal through your system. That’s why a growling intestine can be associated with an empty stomach.

Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that I’m sure you’ve heard of, is released following a meal to help with movement in the small intestine. This special neurotransmitter also gives your brain the feelings of happiness and pleasure. A clear link between your gut and brain, right?

Why am I getting all scientific on you? Because I think it is very helpful to know what is actually happening in your system when you feel hungry. When you get a hunger sensation, it is very likely the result of your last meal moving through a part of your GI tract that just secreted a digestive helper. It’s not an emergency situation. It does not mean that you are experiencing a state of starvation.

Of course, the quality and contents of your food determines how quickly food travels through your digestive tract, signaling the next onslaught of hungry feelings. Protein and foods that are high in fiber take longer to break down and absorb. (Wait…might this be part of the reason I harp on eating your PRO’s so much?) When you eat a lot of protein and vegetables, your digestive processes have to work extra hard, which in turn increases your metabolism.

Metabolism. Ever heard of it? The nutrients that your digestive tract absorbs are used to build and maintain all of your bodily processes. The collection of all of these processes is called your metabolism. These processes can either be challenged to work very hard and fast, or they can be moving slow.

Having a high, hard and fast working metabolism is a good thing. Most of us know this. I could go on and on about metabolism, but I’ll probably save that for another blog post.

But hunger and metabolism is certainly tied together. What you should know for our purposes here is that if you never feel hungry, this could be a sign that your metabolism is not working very hard or fast. Not good.

The next time you feel hungry, ask yourself these questions:

1. When was my last meal and what did it consist of? If you ate just an hour ago and your meal consisted of high quality protein and produce, then your system is simply working hard to digest this. You probably don’t need to feed yourself. But if it's been several hours, you probably should eat a high quality meal again.

2. Am I simply craving certain foods, feeling bored or feeling emotional, and my body is craving the serotonin that food provides? This is often the case when you feel "hungry" when it's not a normal meal time. Going for a walk, talking with a friend, praying, and listening to music can all provide the same relaxing effect. See if you can start to tell the difference between real hunger and cravings.

3. Where are my energy levels at? How are my workouts feeling, and what is my alertness like throughout the day? If you consistently feel tanked and your workouts feel crappy, this could be an indicator that your metabolism is slowing and you would benefit from eating more.

4. Am I actually ok with feeling hungry right now? Often, if we just stop and resist panicking, we will realize that being hungry is not such a big deal. It’s ok to be hungry at various points during the day, and you do not need to be hangry!

Individuality. It’s important to realize that everybody is different. We all have metabolic individuality and personal preferences. Personally, my body feels great when I eat 3 larger meals a day and 2 smaller snacks. When I deviate from this, my cravings begin, my workouts suffer and I begin to experience a stronger emotional tie with my food.

I have some clients that do best with 6 small meals a day, and others that do best with 3 large meals.

What you should ask yourself right now is if your current strategy is working.

Do you eat 2 small and 1 large meal per day, but experience uncontrollable hunger, cravings, and swings in your energy levels? Then you should probably try a different strategy.

Play with it. See if you can get your meals to a place where your mood, energy and appetite feels steady. And remember, hunger is not an emergency. So, the next time your stomach starts growling, recognize that it’s just your digestive tract doing its job instead of a desperate plea for a cracker, stat! 

Want to learn more to get your body in a good spot with nutrition? You should start by reading this: The Healthy Eating Habits

You might also be interest in Portion Control Basics and Eating Your PRO's

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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